Home Magazine New cultural horizons with the artist Maria Thereza Alves

Born in a small village near São Paulo (Brazil), Maria Thereza Alves experienced the drama of the diaspora at the age of four, due to a coup that forced her parents to emigrate to the United States. This personal experience leads Alves to have, from the beginning of her career, a special sensitivity in the analysis of social inequalities, and of the consequent possibility of accessing artistic education only by a social elite and economic positions.

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Influenced by the theories of the two Brazilian authors, Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal - both interested in investigating the potential of culture as a tool for liberation within society - the artist, having completed her university studies, felt the need to come back to Brazil to begin a search aimed at a direct comparison of the history of her country. Tired of false myths and stories built by third parties, the first approach to the work for Alves is characterized precisely by the desire to undermine works that, according to the artist, in their process of becoming "acts of denunciation" do nothing but build fake portraits of life and human situations that they would like to document. Maria Thereza starts from her origins as a poor and a descendant from the native peoples of former African slaves, to confront the testimonies of many people still immobilized by a story that seems to be preventing a regeneration process.


Maria Thereza Alves, Recipes for Survival, 1983.


In her first work “Brazilian Recipes” (1991), Alves was inspired by a cookbook that her mother consulted while working as a cleaning lady in the USA: inside there were only false Brazilian recipes, which were meeting American culinary desires, none of the ingredients listed would have been available to an average Brazilian. The book becomes an example of usurpation and translation of an "esoteric" culture, on the part of culture never really willing to look at the other with virgin eyes. “Brazilian Recipes”, therefore, consists of a fake recipe book, built-through photos and stories chosen by the people with whom the artist came into contact. Her search for truth turns the recipe book into a critical comparison with the history of Brazilian society, in which the portrayed characters tell about fears and desires.

After co-founding the Green Party of São Paulo, the artist wanted to exploit some of her knowledge in the city of Corumbá, to create a project in which artists, poets, musicians, historians, architects, ecologists, could work to create an alternative cultural centre compared to the intellectual domination of São Paulo: where those contributing to culture are not "real" Brazilians, but Euro-Brazilians, almost always coming from wealthy classes. The reference point was a small ranch about 12km from Corumbá, in the middle of the Pantanal, a huge swamp located along the Paraguay River (on the border with Bolivia). The project entitled “Barra / Barre” (1993), unfortunately for Alves did not lead to the hoped-for result: the cultural detachment between her and the community, passive and never encouraged to feel participatory with respect to the cultural life of her own society, made the project never created that desired awareness of the artist. The same happened to a series of interventions that Alves realized in Mexico, in which the involvement remains limited by the same emptiness that the ruling classes, almost always descendants of the European colonizers, created with the aim to maintain their cultural hegemony.


Maria Thereza Alves, Barra / Barre , 1992


In 1995, the artist was able to move to Brussels for a few months, where the Beursschouwburg commissioned her a new job. As soon as she arrived, Maria started a profound analysis of the urban fabric, an extremely important constant in her way of working. Walking through the various streets of the city, Alves begins to notice courtyards, abandoned lands, houses, sidewalks - such as those in Molenbeek, a suburb where Belgian workers and Turkish immigrants lived - along the Zinneke river, a stream of water completely covered, a dead element of the city. The artist begins to investigate what could happen to a river, in its loss of the various interactions given by the living contact with the urban context of belonging. In analyzing the watercourse of other rivers in the city, she discovers how the reflection of water can change our perception of the surrounding reality

This work is a prelude to the series of works that the artist developed in 1999, during her profitable residence at the Jan Van Eych Akademia of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Once again seized by the need to visit and analyze the various districts of the city, Alves was struck by a series of benches that never overlooked the rivers of the city Maas and Jaker. This personal reflection on an ambiguous aspect of the city had to involve a large number of people including residents and tourists. So she starts leaving flyers all over the city, inviting to take part in a tour from which the Back to the Water project is born: five benches as both spatial and visual reference. The tour turns into an open forum of discussion, not subordinated by infrastructures or institutions, in which everyone was called to give a personal impression of what they saw. This experience for Alves represents a moment of authentic revelation on how there was still no artistic research based on an equal social commitment. Her work in Maastricht continues this way through "Window light" (1999), the documentation of the light that filters through the closed houses and projects onto the streets, and “The reflection from my Mideighbour's windows” (1999), based on the request of a resident of the city to involve the community to reopen the Jeker River in the city centre. 

Alves works testify, from the beginning, to the urgency of the artist to feed on her time, to transform her popular background into a means to better understand and get closer to the most marginalized people in society, but also to see how the art system is based on a market with rapid consumption, in which the works seem to stretch towards an easier cloning and usurpation of contents, thus losing their potential for "transformation". In this regard the words of the American scholar Jenet Wolff (professor of Columbia University's School of the Fine Arts) are interesting when she writes about the "affirmative character of art" by Marcuse:


The arts can express and portray great inequalities and suffering, but since they are transposed to an aesthetic level, they simply act in a cathartic manner and, in the process, affirm the existing social relationships by discouraging critical thinking and pacifying the desire for reflection. In a society where culture is reserved for a very small minority or a dominant group, its transformative power remains extremely limited. This means that any political intervention to be carried out through cultural policies cannot be implemented if these conditions are ignored.


Also in 1999, Alves was invited to participate in an artist's residence in Senegal, in the city of Joal Fadiuth, the birthplace of Leopold Senghor, first democratically elected president and important poet and writer. During one of her walks, Alves meets Moussa Gueyee, a young high school student, who is willing to be his guide. The two begin such long walks and intense stories, and one day, passing very close to an abandoned island, Moussa explains to the artist that this is Diothio Deph: a small cemetery where respected animals like cows, horses, donkeys and dogs are buried.
The long talks, the meetings, the reactions of the population together with their testimonies were collected by the artist in the video work Diothio Deph (1999): a work focused on the potential of chatter, gossip, «which was also the basis of my first jobs and experiences made in the villages of origin of my parents».


Maria Thereza Alves, Diothio Dhep, 2004 Video transferred to DVD, 2:35 min. Color, sound

Also in 1999, the ongoing research for the most important work of the Brazilian artist began, based on the creation of a public forum in which people could play an active role in directing the meaning of the artistic work. While she was in Marseille, Alves started studying the ballast flora present in the city, that is the substratum of the port city formed over the centuries by the ballast weights discharged by sailing ships, to stabilize the boats when the weight of the goods was not enough. The artist realized that the seeds contained in the ballast can testify to a narrative of world history that is much more interesting and complex than the one generally presented in the most orthodox reports. By altering the idea of a territorial identity, defined by the simple fact of belonging to a well-defined bioregion, the main question that moves the entire project, calls into question the same parameters through which the geographical and natural history of the places.

It is from these very first reflections that "Seeds of Change" is born, a continuous action, carried out in different places in the world for over twelve years. The artist, starting from the analysis of the flora generated by the transport of ballast - which accompanied the merchant ships and that in their turn around the world, arrived in different European ports - carried scientific research in the artistic environment, with the purpose of analyzing the concept of identity building.


Maria Thereza Alves, Seeds of Change, 1999.


"Seeds of change" is a garden/forum, where everyone is called to give personal support to the project, providing information on the plants, and cooperating with the scientific community, in identifying the ballast in the various European portsIts aspect of gradual awareness within the various communities, with the aim of raising awareness of diversity, has led the project to be hosted in various port cities, including; Marseille; Reeposaariari in Finland; in Topsham and Exeter in Devon, in the United Kingdom; in Liverpool; in Bristol; Rotterdam; and in Antwerp.

Through this collective research, seeds of plants hibernating for centuries have been discovered in the folds of the city, absolutely unknown and never before seen in certain places. In the continuous research work, among the archives and libraries of the local communities, the artist was able to reconstruct the sections of the ships and consequently the ballast discharged, together with the history of the various areas analyzed, of the people who crossed it and lived, but also of journeys, encounters and conflicts, so as to try to redesign a sort of genealogical and documentary map, of the path of the seed and its "origin" first. Results of this construction of stories and identities, were real diagrams that combine images, texts and documents of various types, to reconstruct globalized geography of a place, starting from the analysis of its soil, that is its nature.


Maria Thereza Alves, Seeds of Change: New York - A Botany of Colonization, 2017 Installation water paintings, texts, linen paintings and potted plants


Maria Thereza Alves, Seeds of Change: New York - A Botany of Colonization, 2017 Installation water paintings, texts, linen paintings and potted plants


This project implies important interactions, both in the local context and in the wider global level, the construction of the map places the specific community, with a view to rediscovering a singular shared memory that reconnects local personalities, episodes entered into tradition, public and private places, in a cultural landscape where the keyword becomes "contamination", and in which people are forced to make a critical comparison with their culture of belonging.

As reported in an article by Juliet Magazine:

The fact that the seeds can remain for decades, and even for centuries, dormant but not dead, and can be reborn before the first gesture of love which is cultivation, besides becoming a clear and profound metaphor, is an action that calls the individual to "cultivate" the world he wants, to be the declared protagonist in the construction of a multicultural territory. Reflections on the geopolitical identity of places and people have led the artist to question the ambiguity that underlies the word "native": Can these seeds be considered native? Having arrived in a given place grown, set and finally multiplied, do they not make these plants local plants by now?


As already noted above, Alves' project was born and developed always through a sincere and direct contact with local communities, to the point that many of the people involved worked on the material collected by the artist spontaneously, even before her arrival, already grasping the beauty of what contamination brings with it. The policy of simplicity and shared values thus passes through the ascertainment of "normal" contaminations within societies, which the many policies of domination and control still continue to boycott, introducing unnatural values such as fear for the different, and an exasperated conflict that manifests itself in the various positions more xenophobic. For Alves, "everyone" must equally be part of his artistic project, and her work is addressed in prims to ordinary people, it is denoted by some episodes such as the one related to the gardener of Bristol, intent on treating their beautiful gardens full of exotic plants, but often ready for highly racist judgments. The artist intervened in person to make these ladies understand the absurdity of their racist attitudes, the simple fact of cultivating in their gardens semi-dormant other countries and the most different plants, had to become a symbol of love for all differences, including the various everyday contaminations: their "exotic" garden had to be consciously transformed into a symbol of a disseminated and globalized identity matrix.

"Seeds of Change" also responds perfectly to the questions that arise regarding the transmission of traces of artistic work, with respect to the artist's own authorship. The work, in fact, has three levels of possible users that can be added, but which also live independently: one implies a direct participation as an inhabitant of a given place, both individually and as a community; the other the participation in a work that will then be a public good accessible to all; finally, the awareness that one cannot be a mere external spectator who goes to visit an exhibition, but that through an installation the artist is telling us a story of intersections and contamination.


Maria Thereza Alves, Seeds of Change, 1999.


Around the year 2000, Alves' research on the circulation of vegetation led her to create another artistic project, this time far from the sea. The "Wake" project was born in Berlin, the city where the artist currently resides, always with the intention of becoming an itinerant project, which will touch various cities in the world. Again the ground becomes the main point of reflection, to understand the possibility of the seeds to travel without ballast, but rather through people, animals, wind, and other accidents of the history of each specific site. Furthermore, the birth of the plants and their identification has been, and continues to be "historicized" by the artist, through an archive search that identifies the owners and visitors of the place analyzed, thus tracing an extraordinary biographical story made up of journeys, meetings and anything else that may serve to explain the arrival of a certain plant in that given terrain.
"Wake", as well as "Seeds of Change", proposes a vision all too evident, but stubbornly denied by contemporary European culture, each work is the result of a continuous mixture, more than the cultural richness that characterizes it, become the result of constant contamination. (Maria Thereza Alves)

Maria Thereza plays with the tools of the representation of European and colonial culture, builds diagrams that make us think of the great western family trees, but inserts her considerations and gives these materials, such as "data" of the labile elements, read and reinterpreted according to a subjective vision. The closeness between the role of the artist and that of the anthropologist is fundamental here, because the artist simultaneously impersonates the two roles: on the one hand that of the colonial anthropologist, using his own tools ridiculed and subverted using the same language methodological, on the other, the assumption of a new vision of post-colonial anthropology that re-discusses the cataloguing and oppressive systems of the classical one.

All images courtesy are of the artist --> www.mariatherezaalves.org/index.php


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